The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization uses education, science, culture, communication, and information to foster mutual understanding and respect for our planet. Historically, the U.S. has provided 22% of the Agency’s assessed budget (totaling approximately $80 million per year). In November 2013, however, after two consecutive years not paying our dues to UNESCO, the U.S. lost its vote in the UNESCO General Conference and was forced (per guidelines of the organization) to stop its funding.
The reason the U.S. originally stopped funding UNESCO is found in U.S. Title IV of P.L. 101-246, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. The Act states, “No funds… shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as a member.” In 1994, Congress broadened this prohibition to encompass “any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”
In October 2011, the General Conference of UNESCO voted to extend membership to Palestine, triggering an immediate cut-off of funding to the Agency. These prohibitions are absolute, applying to all funds (assessed and voluntary) that the U.S. provides. And unlike many other funding limitations imposed by Congress, the President is accorded no authority to waive them on the basis of vital U.S. national security, economic, or humanitarian concerns.
Following the UNESCO vote on Palestine, the Obama Administration lobbied Congress to soften provisions by giving the President authority to act “on a case-by-case basis… [if] to do so is important to the national interest of the United States.”
Unfortunately, the President’s appeal was unsuccessful. After two consecutive years of not paying its dues, the U.S. lost its vote in UNESCO in late 2013. The Trump Administration later announced complete U.S. withdraw from the Agency in October 2017.
The Impact to UNESCO
The combination of U.S. withdraw, $612 million in U.S. arrears, and a massive shortfall in UNESCO’s budget created a perilous financial crisis for many programs administered by the Agency. In fact, because of the loss of U.S. funding, the following programs have experienced severe cuts or threats of elimination:
- Transparency and Accountability of the Judiciary in Iraq
- Iraq Literacy and Curriculum Development Programs
- Literacy for Afghan Police
- Holocaust Education
- Groundwater Resources Exploration to Combat Drought & Famine in the Horn of Africa
- Promoting Education in Support of Nation-Building in South Sudan
The Rise of China
Without the U.S. at the table, UNESCO’s work as a standard-bearer for human rights, free expression, and open inquiry has been weakened. Moreover, China has replaced the U.S. as the organization’s largest financial contributor, providing more than 15% of the Agency’s assessed budget in 2020. In recent years, China has sought to use UNESCO as a platform to advance its own interests — part of a larger push to wield growing clout at the United Nations.
For example, China urged UNESCO to support vocational and job training programs in countries partnering with China on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as a partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to enhance “capacity-building in Belt and Road Initiative countries.” Given the BRI’s potential implications for U.S. national security and economic interests — particularly in the Asia-Pacific region — this is a concerning development. Unfortunately, due to America’s absence from UNESCO, the U.S. is limited in its ability to push back.
Where We Now Stand
In the FY2023 Omnibus Appropriations bill, Congress provided the State Department with temporary authority to waive current funding prohibitions and resume financial contributions to and engagement with UNESCO. While the bill did not include additional funds to make a full contribution to the Agency, President Biden allocated $150 million in the FY2024 budget request to begin paying down our arrears.
It’s now incumbent upon Congress to approve this funding.